Absence of Memory, Council for European Studies Conference, Postmemory, Reassembling Jewish Life in Poland, Włocławska Zapomniana Ulica
Yesterday, I presented a paper titled, “Reassembling Jewish Life in Poland.” It starts like this:
It is easy to get the impression that we have entered an era of retrenchment of exclusionary national, ethnic, and religious categories, making minorities of any kind suspect. Specific objects of fear, such as terrorists, raise suspicions about broader categories, such as Muslims; the economic threat attributed to immigrants extends to all Mexicans, Syrians, North Africans, or Eastern Europeans. And Jews have once again become the object of attacks in Western Europe, leading Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg (2015) to title his recent cover article, “Is it Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” In the current climate of exclusionary politics, the quiet emergence in Poland of efforts to embrace the long history of Jewish residence is all the more striking. Recent studies have “revisited” Jewish Poland (Lehrer 2013) and documented the “return of the Jew” (Reszke 2013), challenging the common assumption that antisemitism rests at the heart of what it means to be Polish. I have been studying contemporary memory projects, including commemorative sites, museums, and cultural festivals that endeavor to reassemble the remaining fragments that provide a window into what Jewish life (and its destruction) was like in Poland. These fragments can reveal something about the past, even if it is just in an incomplete and shattered form. Perhaps of greater significance, they can point toward the future—the possibilities for reengaging with ethnic and religious categories in ways that acknowledge difference without encouraging exclusion.
The figure of the Jew remains a multivalent symbol in Poland, even after the destruction of Jewish culture during the Holocaust and further erasure of its traces during state socialism. My research on Jewish heritage asks what can be done with the fragments of Jewish culture that remain, sometimes hidden and sometimes in plain sight. And what value does such memory work have? It might appear that too little is left, or that any attempt to piece together fragments will just expose more horror, trauma, and death. Nevertheless, the steady growth of interest in Jewish culture in Poland can be seen in major projects like Warsaw’s Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and in much quieter ways in smaller communities throughout the country. Even President Duda, whose Law and Justice Party tends to support nationalism and exclusionary practices, recently spoke against antisemitism at the opening of the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews. To set the stage for my reflections about reassembled fragments of Jewish culture, I first situate Jews within the disrupted history of Poland, and discuss the consequences of postwar trauma under state socialism. This is also a first attempt at integrating an ethnographic approach to the topic, through exploration of commemorative sites and practices, and a more personal one, in the form of interwoven stories about my own Jewish-Polish heritage. Building on concepts of postmemory (Hirsch) and absence of memory (Irwin-Zarecka), I consider what reassembly projects promise for the reconciliation of Polish-Jewish relations on both social and personal levels.
I focused on Włocławek for my case material: Places embodying the “absence of memory” such as the swimming pool in the Jewish cemetery in Brześć Kujawski, the crumbling buildings formerly owned by Jews in the center of Włocławek, and the monument to the Jewish ghetto in the schoolyard that used to be the Jewish cemetery. I discussed what such places communicate about the history of Jewish life (and death) in Poland, as well as the personal, emotional resonances of such places.
Then, I contrasted the impression left by the the Facebook page, “Włocławska Zapomniana Ulica (Forgotten Street of Włocławek),” in which students and teachers at the Automotive High School in Włocławek document “Places of the Holocaust close to us.” The site features historic photographs, brief histories, and excerpts from interviews with local historians and residents who remember the Nazi occupation of the city. This is heavy stuff, and yet the project reflects a different orientation toward the past than do the crumbling buildings on abandoned streets and the swimming pool in a burial ground. It is a public display of intangible heritage, a space for documenting the murder and destruction that occurred during the Holocaust in very personal, localized terms. The Facebook page announces, “These events happened here, on our streets.” It is all the more notable because the primary organizers and audience in this project are young people, probably in most cases the post-postmemory generation that was supposed to be too distant from events to feel any personal connection to them.
And the story doesn’t stop here. I am looking forward to visiting the high school students and their teachers in June. And now my cousins are also interested in the project and maybe even getting involved with it somehow. The ethnographic and personal strands of my work continue to become more strongly intertwined.